Raising Kane

Every Sunday at noon, WPBT-TV (Channel 2) in Miami airs Issues, one of those earnest public-affairs talk shows that you know you should probably watch but never do. One Sunday last month, moderator Helen Ferré presented a panel of two freshly coifed journalists, a toothy young politician, and a bespectacled academic type to discuss the effects of legislative term limits. She introduced the last as Jim Kane of Fort Lauderdale, a polling specialist and editor of Florida Voter. He was asked to lead off the analysis.

"Back in 1992, when voters passed term limits, we had some of the lowest levels of trust in government since modern polling began," said Kane, perhaps Florida's best-known political pollster, who wore a dour expression on his thoughtful face. He brightened slightly as he described an ironic twist of public opinion. Even though voters distrust government in the abstract, he explained, they usually like their own representatives, so they're ambivalent about term limits. "It's like, 'Stop me before I reelect my incumbent legislator again,'" he said, beaming at his own joke. Suddenly turning solemn he noted that the potential problem with term limits is that it gives more power to lobbyists and special-interest groups.

What the mercurial Kane, age 52, didn't mention is that he is one of those special-interest lobbyists. He's also a political campaign consultant, fundraiser, and businessman who receives public contracts from Broward County's Democratic leaders -- many of whom he helped get elected. While he's locally identified with Democrats, his bread is buttered by a powerful family that supports Republicans in statewide and national contests. Florida Voter, his ostensibly independent monthly polling newsletter, lists as its publisher M. Austin Forman, one of Broward County's most politically influential businessmen.

But you wouldn't know about the many faces of Jim Kane from reading the more than 120 articles in newspapers during the past year in which he is quoted. Reporters from The Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other papers use Kane as their all-purpose expert on what Florida voters think and feel. He's their oracle on whether Vice President Al Gore has a chance against Texas governor George W. Bush, how Columba Bush's Paris shopping spree played in Pensacola, and even why the public was so broad-minded about President Clinton's peccadilloes.

"I talk to him quite a bit because I've found him to be pretty good," says Terry Neal, a national political reporter for The Washington Post. "His poll is well respected in Washington, and he gets back to you quickly." But Neal admits that he didn't know about Kane's heavy involvement in Broward Democratic politics. "I plead guilty," he says. "I cover politics all over the country, and I don't know everything about each pollster."

Kane's multiple roles create clear conflicts of interest for him, the politicians he backs, and the reporters and editors who publish his survey results and commentary. Polling experts argue that the public is entitled to know more about the possible biases of a pollster who strongly influences media coverage of elections. Yet Kane refused to discuss his political and business interests with New Times -- and even threatened to file criminal charges against a reporter when asked about these issues.

"It undermines the credibility of polling in the mind of the public if the pollster has obligations in another sphere that haven't been made clear," says Warren Mitofsky, a veteran New York media pollster who founded the CBS News/New York Times Poll. "News organizations have an obligation to identify him as a partisan political player."

Kane is undeniably partisan in what's shaping up to be a high-profile political clash over a proposed 38-story, $50 million apartment tower next to Fort Lauderdale's century-old Stranahan House. The two-story pine house, on the banks of the New River, was the area's original Indian trading post, ferry station, school, post office, and civic meeting hall, as well as the home of Frank and Ivy Stranahan, who helped found the city. Kane is serving as a paid lobbyist for the developers.

His clients, the Related Group of Florida and Coolidge-South Markets Equities, may need all the political help they can get. They want to wrap a 312-unit tower, a retail arcade, and a parking garage around the old house on the 1.5-acre site now occupied by Hyde Park Market on Las Olas Boulevard. But the trustees of the Stranahan House, a museum visited by 25,000 people a year, have long wanted to acquire that land for a park, an office, and a gift shop. The public, they argue, should be able to see the house and the river from Las Olas and not have those sights blocked by a 363-foot-tall building.

The current battleground is the Downtown Development Authority, a quasi-public agency that recently won approval for a $12 million bond issue for downtown improvements. The Stranahan board wants the DDA to condemn the property, pay the owner fair-market value, and create a park. But judging from the agency's meeting last month, the DDA looks like hostile turf for park supporters. The ten board members, several of whom are real-estate investors and/or developers themselves, listened sympathetically as Jorge Perez, chairman of Related, stressed the importance of building more residential units downtown. "This is the greatest residential site in South Florida," gushed Perez, who vowed to give the Stranahan House free space in his arcade for an office and a gift shop.

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Harris Meyer